New EPA Rule Will Cut Medical Waste Pollution


Lower emissions of dioxins, mercury, lead from incinerators nationwide


Jim Pew, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 214
Jane Williams, Sierra Club, (661) 510-3412

New rules from the Environmental Protection Agency will cut toxic air pollution from medical waste incinerators and eliminate a loophole that allowed incinerators to exceed pollution limits during startup or malfunctions.

Read the new rule here (PDF)

The EPA’s action, taken within months of the appointment of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, follows two lawsuits and more than a decade of advocacy by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club. The rule announced today will apply to medical waste incinerators nationwide.

The new rule sets significantly stronger standards for medical waste incinerators’ emissions of mercury, dioxins, lead, and other dangerous pollutants. Of particular importance, the rule mandates:

  • A significant reduction in the amount of mercury that can be released from incinerators.
  • Enhanced testing of small, rural, medical waste incinerators, resulting in better enforcement in rural communities
  • Significant reductions in dioxins, lead and other major pollutants, all of which will bring increased health benefits to communities hosting medical waste incinerators

In addition, the rule eliminates a loophole that previously allowed medical waste incinerators to exceed emission limits whenever they started up, shut down, or malfunctioned.

“The actions taken by EPA today to reduce air pollution in communities hosting medical waste incinerators is long overdue and welcomed,” said Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club Air Toxics Task Force.

“EPA’s new Administrator, Lisa Jackson, has taken a big step toward reducing pollution from medical waste incinerators,” said Jim Pew, an Earthjustice attorney who handled the cases. “It is a breath of fresh air, figuratively and literally, that EPA has taken action that will allow people to breath more easily in towns and cities across the country.”

Environmental Background

Dioxin is the most potent carcinogen ever evaluated by EPA. Mercury is known to damage the central nervous systems of unborn babies and children, resulting in symptoms similar to congenital cerebral palsy. Lead is a probable human carcinogen that also can cause developmental damage in children and babies as well as brain damage, kidney damage, and damage to the reproductive system. Even small amounts of these pollutants can cause cancer or similarly tragic health effects.

Dioxin and mercury both build up in fatty tissue and increase in concentration as they move up the food chain. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study found mercury contamination exceeds federal safe levels for human consumption in one-fourth of freshwater fish. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that 6 percent to 8 percent  of all women of childbearing age are at risk of bearing children with irreparable birth defects as a result of mercury contamination in the fish they eat. Even low levels of mercury exposure in utero or during early childhood can impair a child’s ability to walk, talk, read, write and learn.

In addition to dioxin and mercury, medical waste incinerators emit several other harmful pollutants such as lead, cadmium, hydrogen chloride, and soot.

Legal Background

Environmental groups challenged the EPA’s 1997 rule for medical waste incinerators as unlawfully weak. In 1999, the United States Court of Appeals described the agency’s rulemaking as “hopelessly irrational” and sent the 1997 rule back to the agency for change or explanation.

The Bush administration ignored the 1999 court order, forcing Sierra Club and Earthjustice back to court in 2005 and resulting in a court ordered deadline. Today’s rule responds to that deadline. 

Additional Resources

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